Despite receiving critical acclaim for masterfully portraying the lead role in the Academy Award-winning film “Son of Saul,” Hungarian-born Geza Rohrig does not identify as an actor. “I’m an accidental actor. I’m a writer, that’s what I do. It gives me much more freedom, because I can write whatever I’m capable of. I don’t need to ask anybody’s opinion. Me being an actor is a whole different game,” says Rohrig.
Premiering in 2015 at the Cannes Film Festival, “Son of Saul” tells the story of Saul, an Auschwitz prisoner and member of the Sonderkommando. Forced to dispose of the bodies removed from the gas chambers, Saul stoically performs his duties until he is faced with the body of a boy he recognizes. The film follows Saul as he struggles with trying to do what he believes is right for the body of the boy.
A poet and former kindergarten teacher, Rohrig, a 49-year-old father of four, was not director Laszlo Nemes’ first choice for the role. “He had somebody in mind for the role, and when that didn’t work out – I think he had like three months before shooting – he started panicking. I think someone brought me to his attention, and he contacted me. It wasn’t an easy process, because I was a risky choice,” says Rohrig. As an observant Jew, Rohrig would not film any of his scenes on Shabbat, but the director agreed.
Rohrig will be in Tucson for the Elizabeth Leibson Holocaust Remembrance Lecture on Feb. 9. Ron and Kathy Margolis established the lectureship in memory of Ron’s mother, who was a resident of Tucson. Sponsored by the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, the multimedia event will look at several representations of the Holocaust and engage the audience with a conversational question-and-answer session with Rohrig and Bryan Davis, executive director of the museum. “I assume we are going to talk about why we all believe so much in this movie,” says Rohrig. “We thought that this movie treated the subject matter differently than all of the other movies, otherwise there is no reason to make one more [about the Holocaust].”
Laszlo Nemes and the team behind “Son of Saul” wanted to create a realistic film. “We were honest, unlike Hollywood. We didn’t Americanize the Holocaust. We didn’t try to put a big huge nice humanistic message, some comforting happy ending. We did not make a movie about survivors, we did not make a movie about rescuers, because by far, there were no survivors, and by far, there were no rescuers. Very, very few people survived. We were all fed up with movies focusing on the survivors,” says Rohrig.
Looking forward to speaking in Tucson, Rohrig anticipates some conversation about his religious observance. “Being an observant Jew, maybe some larger questions can arise. The faith of the Jew and the challenge that the Holocaust represents,” says Rohrig, who credits that challenge with his becoming observant after a childhood spent in foster homes in Hungary. “I lost faith in man because of Auschwitz, and that vacuum – that void -had to be filled with something. I felt like I had the right to my heritage, and I started to learn, and I realized this is nothing new in Jewish history. And the questions that the Holocaust poses were always present in the Jewish mind, and, not that I would ever excuse G-d, or I would find some answer that no one found before, but all in all I see no hope for us, unless we somehow find our ways to the Creator.”
The Elizabeth Leibson Holocaust Remembrance Lecture will take place Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. in Holsclaw Hall in the University of Arizona music building, 1017 N. Olive Road. A reception will follow. Tickets, $36, are available at jewishhistorymuseum.org/events or by phone at 577-9393.